The Lost Futures of Mark Fisher


Reviewed by Ben Sixsmith

In 2013, the British cultural and political theorist Mark Fisher wrote an article called “Exiting the Vampire Castle” in which he took issue with the censorious moralism of much of the online left. “Poshleft moralisers,” he maintained, were enamored of “kangaroo courts and character assassinations” in place of “comradeship and solidarity.” “While in theory [this tendency] claims to be in favour of structural critique,” he wrote, “in practice it never focuses on anything except individual behaviour.”

Fisher had struggled for years to inspire and energise an imaginative left. His weblog “K-punk” had been a fascinating mix of thoughts on everything from speculative realism to Girls Aloud, without a trace of knowing postmodern pretension. He was passionate, and curious, and wickedly intelligent, and fiercely devoted to the socialist cause.

Zero Books, the publishing house that Fisher built, left a micro-manifesto in all its early books, decrying the “cretinous anti-intellectualism” of modern culture, where “expensively educated hacks in the pay of multinational corporations … reassure their bored readers that there is no need to rouse themselves from interpassive stupor.” As a young leftist I bought (and barely understood) such exhaustingly erudite books as Dominic Fox’s Cold World, Owen Hatherley’s Militant Modernism, and Fisher’s own 2009 monograph Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?

Fisher’s writing was far more suited to blogs and books than Twitter and Facebook, and his star faded in the social media age. “Exiting the Vampire Castle” brought him a great deal of opprobrium from young, embittered leftists who dismissed him as a “middle-aged white dude.” It took his suicide in 2017 for his work to be reassessed and embraced on the left. A posthumous collection, K-punk, has even been reviewed in the New Yorker, which, one suspects, would have had little time for him if it had not been for the tragic dignity of death.

Capitalist Realism

Rereading Capitalist Realism I was surprised how much I agreed with. Perhaps I should not have been. The right and the left have struggled with the false consensuses of “moderation,” and been forced to chip away at the ossified elements of their intellectual culture that have hardened into careerism and complacency. Even discussing disadvantages of free market economics, as the American right did after Tucker Carlson’s landmark monologue, would have been almost unthinkable a decade ago.

Fisher’s critique of liberal managerialism, which promotes itself as the only realistic form of governance even as its stewards inflict absurd monstrosities like bank bailouts and preemptive invasions on the world, is often incisive and profound. “Pay for your own exploitation,” he writes of the higher education bubble. “Get into debt so you can get the same McJob you could have walked into if you’d left school at sixteen.” Doubtless, his prescriptions would have been different from mine but his contempt for the status quo is righteous and bracing.

One cannot help but nod along when Fisher critiques the British series Supernanny for “troubleshooting … individual families” and ignoring structural factors that promote societal dysfunction. To be sure, conservatives would argue that familial breakdown can be blamed on cultural as well as economic factors, and would be skeptical of leftists towards unrestrained deconstruction being a force for good, but Fisher is correct that the rhetoric of personal responsibility has been impotent against historical forces.

The book sometimes begins arguments that conservatives could finish. Fisher notes that in an age of capitalist realism the public are often told not how to think but what to feel. “Morality,” he notes, “has been replaced by feeling.” This is true, though a conservative could point out how much words like “love” and “hate” are employed by cultural, economic, and political institutions as a means of promoting progressivism. Perhaps Fisher would have accepted the point.

Of course, the book has flaws. One does not have to be a Pinkerite optimist to suggest that Fisher’s dismissal of the blessings of modernity is too uncompromising. The perspective of a modern “realist,” he suggests, is “analogous to the deflationary perspective of a depressive who believes that any positive state, any hope, is a dangerous illusion.” For all we might hope to change about the modern world, there is at least something to be said for an age in which few parents have to bury their children, few people go hungry, and most people have access to clean toilets and drinking water. If that sounds uninspiring one should remember how unimaginable it would have seemed even a few hundred years ago.

Oddly, Fisher ignores the utopian tendencies within Western elites. As much as it is true that citizens are often told to accept their lot and “keep calm and carry on,” elite liberalism is a hubristic endeavor. The environment can sustain permanent growth. Liberal democracy can flourish across the Middle East. Migrants unproblematically provide cheap labour. These are not the beliefs of mere managerialists but of dreamers, if a rather blinkered, unimaginative kind. A grave problem with capitalist realism, with its centrists and its moderates and its reasonableness, is often that it is not realistic at all.

Most peculiarly there is little to no detail on what Fisher’s “alternative” could be. But this is a theme to which I will return.

Accelerating Contradictions, and the Contradictions of Acceleration

In the 1990s, Fisher worked with the mysterious Cybernetic Cultural Research Institute, a collection of theorists built around the philosophers Sadie Plant and Nick Land.

The nineties, among other things, were a decade of commodified despair. Rock stars like Kurt Cobain and Thom Yorke agonized over their seamless assimilation into the market, and artists like Damian Hirst rather welcomed the fantastically lucrative fame of their bleak, cynical projects. When it came to bleak cynicism, however, Nick Land was in a far less profitable class of own.

Fisher was an early admirer of Land, who wrote and behaved like a maniac, “clambering over chairs as he spoke, or sitting hunched over, rocking back and forth.” Land was a proponent of accelerationism, according to which human intelligence would be outstripped by machine intelligence. “What appears to humanity as the history of capitalism,” wrote Land in one essay, “is an invasion from the future by an artificial intelligent space that must assemble itself entirely from its enemy’s resources.” “Mankind,” he wrote more recently, “is its temporary host, not its master. Its only purpose is itself.”

This dark vision was a bold, prescient alternative to the sun-baked and profit-drunk optimism of Silicon Valley. Once it might have sounded like preposterous science fiction, but now mainstream philosophers like Nick Bostrom and tech giants like Elon Musk are concerned about the potential for AI to exceed human control. What makes Land different is that he seems to welcome it.

Fisher and his colleagues toyed with the idea of a left-wing accelerationism that would somehow fuse the power of technological progress with an egalitarian desire for communal transcendence, as Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s rambling Accelerate Manifesto put it, “beyond the limitations of the earth and our immediate bodily forms.”

Land had no time for this sort of cyberhumanism. Fisher had once written of Land’s “baiting of so-called progressive tendencies,” but after he began to publish his long essays on “The Dark Enlightenment,” with their unwavering anti-democratic, hereditarian, and eugenicist themes, it became clear that this had not been contrarian mischief but ideological outrage. Left-wing futurists struggled to disassociate themselves from a man they had so admired. He was a personal and ideological inconvenience, as his ideas illuminate how technological progress could lead not just to the downfall of capitalist realism but the rise of capitalist radicalism: elitist and frigidly anti-humanist.

K-punk

Fisher did not get involved with the denunciation. He had already described Land as being “the kind of antagonist that the left needs,” and the left was making it clear that it could and would not tolerate antagonists. One of the likable things about Fisher was his unfashionable willingness to engage with his opponents. For example, he debated arch-conservative Roger Scruton on the subject of academia, and even landed some good blows, pointing out that Hegel and Heidegger prove that the obscurantist style in philosophy is not restricted to the left. Now, his comrades simply howl that Scruton is an evil bigot.

It was not surprising, then, that Fisher would criticize the left’s shrillness and puritanism as he did in “Escaping the Vampire’s Castle.” Yet this was by no means because he was any less accepting of left-wing conceptions of racism, homophobia, misogyny, et cetera, nor any less committed to pursuing a world in which racial, sexual, and gender egalitarianism prevails. Fisher’s problem was with a left that targets individuals rather than systems, that abstracts identity from class and that assails enemies and heretics more than it attempts to win friends. He wanted to uproot neoliberalism, not just cut off a few gnarled and knobbly twigs, and he knew that that required mass movements and popular sentiments, not witch hunts and circular firing squads. The relative success of “democratic socialists” like Jeremy Corbyn and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would have cheered him.

Yet to leave it there would also appall him. A sharp piece in the new posthumous collection K-punk assails the attempts of the obituarists of the English experimental writer J. G. Ballard to domesticate his legacy. “Assimilation,” it claims, “is sometimes the most effective kind of assassination.” To avoid the possibility of Fisher being easily assimilated into neoliberal culture, his friends and admirers have produced this book, which reflects a lifetime of attempts to hurl insight bombs at apathetic listeners and readers and rewire their consciousnesses into a more radical, sensitive, and comradely circuit.

K-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher is a big book, weighing in at over five hundred pages. Lovingly assembled by Darren Ambrose, it collects essays, articles, blog posts, and introductions, ordered, sensibly, by theme and not by date of publication. Some pieces, like “Book Meme,” will interest only dedicated Fishermen, but there is a wealth of insight and provocation here.

Classic Fisher themes are weaved throughout the text. There is the insistence that mental illness is at least to some extent “caused by the deliberate destruction of solidarity and security.” A quick search of this giant book suggests that it does not contain the words “genetics,” “genes” or “hereditary,” which suggests that Fisher and I would disagree on the extent to which it is also a product of inherent features of our psychological make-up, but I share his scorn for the idea that “mental health” has no relation to our circumstances and would add that family breakdown, atomization, and social media have been factors, as well as economic hardship.

Sneaking in and out of the book, too, is Fisher’s treasured concept of “hauntology,” which, taken from Derrida, is “the study of that which repeats without ever being present.” In everything from the dark textures of The Shining to the spare beats of the English electronic musician Burial, Fisher senses utopian urges posing as nostalgia. In a piece on Burial and the London Olympics, he writes:

Burial is attuned to the muffled, muted light flashes of the numinous that can be fleetingly glimpsed through the mundane. Distant lights, or lights that can be apprehended only from a distance. Can we be guided by these lights, instead of by the Olympic flame, a symbol of a capital now more globalised than ever, the ultra-bright striplights drawing planetary destiny into an eternal shopping mall surrounded by a sweatshop?

It would help, perhaps, to know what those lights are.

Fisher’s keen desire to follow an argument to its end escaped him for two different reasons. Sometimes, as is perhaps inevitable in anyone, his curiosity was thwarted by the limits of his ideological standards. A piece on the London bombings, for example, condemns people who think that jihadism reflects the essence of Islam, claiming, “Islam, like all other religions, is a riot of contradictions, a tissue of interpretations.” End. To some extent, perhaps, but the left wallows in this kind of relativism as a means of protecting egalitarian assumptions. I would not claim that Islam is monolithically malign, of course, but someone less constrained by their unconscious sense of ideological appropriateness would ask why interpretations of the faith lead people towards evangelistic violence and puritanical tyranny so much more than interpretations of other faiths.

Fisher’s intellectual adventures also come to sudden stops at points where he might otherwise have toyed with explanations of alternative social systems and not merely insisted on the need for them. As well as the example above there is a piece that insists that leftists should not succumb to primitivist urges in the face of environmental destruction as “modern technological civilisation can be organised in a different way.” Fine. What way? Again, no answers are forthcoming.

Fisher’s work contains allusions to the lost causes. An odd little section in Capitalist Realism winks towards the supposed contradiction that the films of Andrei Tarkovsky were filmed in the “ostensibly moribund conditions of the Brezhnevite Soviet state.” Somehow Fisher could not find space in his slim book to mention that Tarkovsky fought arduous battles with Soviet censors before leaving the country. For all that Fisher knew of and despised Soviet atrocities he could not shake the nagging sense, common among left-wingers, that the Soviets were onto something regardless.

Fisher was on safer grounds mourning the death of Salvador Allende. “If there was a founding event of capitalist realism,” he wrote in one essay, “It would be the violent destruction of the Allende government in Chile … Allende was experimenting with a form of democratic socialism which offered a real alternative both to capitalism and to Stalinism.” Allende was a decent and courageous man, and I wish his government had survived because, if nothing else, its record would not be in doubt, but the Chilean’s status as a martyr to Marxism allows leftists to see too much lost potential in his government. As the sympathetic economist Alec Nove wrote in “The Political Economy of the Allende Regime,” financial mismanagement, among other factors, enabled hyperinflation and dramatic shortages in basic utilities while Allende was in power. He might have stabilized his government and encouraged some progress if he had not been deposed, but there were no signs of Chile becoming a beacon to the international proletariat. Latin American leaders since Allende, as Fisher does not discuss, have attempted to forge a path between capitalism and Stalinism, with disastrous results in the case of Venezuala’s Hugo Chavez and decent but uninspiring results in the case of Bolivia’s Evo Morales. If there are alternatives to neoliberalism, leftists have resoundingly failed to provide them.

At the time of his death, Fisher was working on a book devoted to “acid communism.” Its introduction appears towards the end of K-punk. Fisher was attracted to the consciousness-rewiring surrealism of the counterculture of the sixties, where music, movies, and literature led people into worlds where “dreary repetitiveness gave way to drifting explorations of strange terrains.” “The new bohemia seemed to point to the elimination of the bourgeoisie and its values,” Fisher insists, and there was the possibility of communion “between the counterculture and the traditional revolutionary left” in a campaign for egalitarian fraternity.

One quality of Fisher’s introduction is how keenly and insistently he argues that the problem, as he sees it, is not just wealth and income inequality, but the contrast between the tedium and stress that afflicts the common citizen and the aspirational propaganda of the market. Conservatives should accept that this problem matters and not just dismiss it a product of mere self-entitlement. To some extent it has been caused by the decline of family, faith, and cultural capital but there is at least a symbiotic relationship between the two phenomena.

Yet what is Fisher’s alternative? He quotes Michael Hardt as claiming that

the positive content of communism, which corresponds to the abolition of private property, is the autonomous production of humanity—a new seeing, a new hearing, a new thinking, a new loving.

This is not the content though, any more than the desire of a small-businessman to make millions makes them a millionaire. Regardless, Fisher adds:

A new humanity, a new seeing, a new thinking, a new loving: this is the promise of acid communism, and it was the promise that you could hear in “Psychedelic Shack” and the culture that inspired it. Only five years separated “Psychedelic Shack” from the Tempations’ early signature hit “My Girl,” but how many new worlds had come into being then? In “My Girl,” love remains sentimentalized, confined to the couple, in “Psychedelic Shack,” love is collective, and orientated towards the outside.

Here, one senses Fisher sweating, struggling, and straining as he tries to will his desires into reality through the sheer force of his prose. Of course, the book remained unfinished so it is unfair to dismiss “acid communism” entirely. Still, reading the breathless claim that new worlds had come into being I cannot but emphasize the difference between a song about blissful and harmonic forms of collective love and the communes and cults that tried to put them into practice for longer than a night at the local disco. I can’t help, too, but point out that the idealized form of form of romance in “My Girl” is no more sentimental than the spliff-thick optimism of “Psychedelic Shack.”

Fisher was rightly concerned about the tedium and stress of modern labor, but his alternative seems feeble. The fun but cranky English writer Colin Wilson banged on about “peak experiences,” or moments of pure happiness, and the possibility of creating them at will. Fisher seems to have wished he could live permanently in the state of pure excitement that he felt listening to music, and this was about as plausible. Calling that “capitalist realism” does not make it untrue.

Still, conservatives should see the good in K-punk. We should admire Fisher’s tremendous curiosity, a trait which, sadly, has been underrepresented on the right thanks to the monomania that some have developed around economics and foreign policy. We should resist the desire to individualize all social phenomena as much as the impulse towards herdlike collectivism. We should not allow ourselves to bask in complacency when confronted with the destabilizing and dehumanizing aspects of capitalism. Civilized societies are precious, and blood has been spilled for every brick that has built them, but that does not mean we should embrace all of their defects, still less ignore structural damage. We must have imagination. There is something to Michael Oakeshott’s understanding of a conservative as one who prefers the tried to the untried and the familiar to the unknown—but the future is coming, in its strange and mighty form, and it may not care about our preferences. 

Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland. He tweets at BDSixsmith.